How John Hickenlooper Could Win The 2020 Democratic Nomination

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced on Monday that he is running for president, saying that he “can bring people together to produce the progressive change Washington has failed to deliver.”

Since being laid off from his job as a geologist in 1986, Hickenlooper’s luck has only improved. He and three friends founded a craft brewery in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood, helping bring development to a now-thriving part of the city. In 2003, Hickenlooper used that success as a springboard to be elected mayor, and then won re-election in 2007 with 87 percent of the vote. He then steered Colorado through disasters, tragedy and a recession for two terms as governor, leaving office earlier this year with an enviable legacy and a solid approval rating to boot. Now, he’s hoping to channel that success into becoming president of the United States. But in a field of Democrats who are both better known and have more obvious constituencies, is this where Hickenlooper’s climb stops?

Hickenlooper’s campaign is basically starting from scratch. In early surveys of the Democratic field — which mostly reflect name recognition at this point — he is polling between 0 and 1 percent.5 Only 22 percent of Democratic respondents even have an opinion of him, according to an average of national favorability polls since the beginning of the year. And he’s not on the radar of many Democratic activists in early states, either.

What Hickenlooper does have going for him is that he may be more skilled than most at getting his name out there. He’s run some of the best political ads in recent memory, including endearing spots about parking meters and his humble wardrobe, which helped him stand out in a wide-open field (sound familiar?) during his first run for mayor. And later ads in which he went skydiving and took a shower — fully clothed — were nothing if not memorable. His quirky personality was his secret political weapon in Colorado, but it’s unclear how it’ll shake out on a national stage, where his demographics — older, white, male — may pigeonhole him as a retread.

But even Hickenlooper himself admits that his moderate image is likely to be a problem in a Democratic presidential primary. The party’s influential left wing will probably view him with suspicion over his opposition to anti-fracking efforts, sympathies with the oil and gas industry (which once employed him) and wishy-washy comments over one of his signature progressive achievements, a gun-control package passed in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. (Hickenlooper’s reported flirtation with running for president on a “unity ticket” with Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich probably won’t help, either.)

Although his tenure as governor was marked by economic success and liberal wins on social issues, his style of getting things done was undeniably bipartisan (perhaps out of necessity, given that Republicans controlled one chamber of the legislature during six of his eight years in office). Indeed, the only time Hickenlooper’s popularity as governor faltered was when he swerved left in 2013, signing those gun-control bills and staying the execution of convicted murderer Nathan Dunlap. He pivoted back to the center for 2014 and became Colorado’s only statewide Democrat to survive that year’s Republican wave. As he was preparing to leave office in late 2018, his approval/disapproval spread stood at 49 percent to 30 percent, giving him a +18 PARG — Popularity Above Replacement Governor. That’s nerd-speak for “a very high approval rating in a politically divided state.” Clearly, Hickenlooper is a consensus-builder, but it’s hard to imagine his motto of “there’s no profit margin in making enemies” resonating with the current mood of the Democratic electorate.

As FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver has written, Hickenlooper follows in the tradition of other politicians from the American West — candidates who wear cowboy boots and stand amid the great outdoors in ads espousing a nonideological, anti-politician message. That sort of branding has obvious appeal in the Mountain West, but Hickenlooper will have to expand his support elsewhere to win the nomination. In the 2016 primaries, the mountain states6 accounted for just 7 percent of pledged Democratic delegates, a function of their small size and Republican lean. Not to mention that Democrats have never nominated a presidential or vice-presidential candidate from west of the Central time zone in their 191-year history as a party.

Even more troubling, it’s hard to point to a clear base for Hickenlooper — at least one big enough to propel him meaningfully in a national primary. Contrary to his folksy image, the former big-city mayor doesn’t have a great track record of appealing to rural areas. As governor, his administration’s renewable-energy and gun policies alienated some rural counties so much that they symbolically voted to secede from Colorado. And he doesn’t do very well in our five-corners formulation of thinking about the Democratic primary field either:

Perhaps his penchant for viral videos will make him a favorite among millennials; the craft beer lover and banjo player already has a touch of hipster cred. A smarter strategy might be leaning into being the “cannabis candidate.” As governor of the first state where marijuana sales became legal (in 2014), Hickenlooper oversaw the law’s implementation and has nurtured a thriving cannabis industry. But while he hasn’t been shy about touting the benefits of recreational pot, activists may not be willing to forget that he initially opposed legalization in 2012.

Hickenlooper’s campaign might also plausibly try to leverage his background in geology; science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals are increasingly political engaged and even have their own PAC. But so far, science as a policy issue doesn’t seem to be resonating with voters. When we researched the win rates of various types of candidates in 2018 Democratic primary races, we found that candidates with a STEM background had won just 23 percent of their primaries to that point, compared with 33 percent of non-STEM professionals.

Perhaps the strongest card in Hickenlooper’s hand is his status as a former governor; historically, they have better track records than members of Congress at being nominated for and elected president. But that is no guarantee of future success, and Hickenlooper starts the campaign a clear underdog. Once again, the self-made man will have to lift himself up from nothing to prevail.


From ABC News: